Metro Council To Discuss Overlay

June 5, 2002
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GRAND RAPIDS — The Executive Committee of the Grand Valley Metro Council narrowly voted to back the position held by the Grand Rapids Area Chamber of Commerce in opposing an area-code overlay for the 616 area.

At a joint meeting of the executive and legislative committees, members of the executive committee voted 4 to 3 to support the chamber’s opposition.

Earlier, the council’s legislative committee endorsed the chamber’s stand and agreed to take the issue to the executive committee. The full Metro Council will discuss the matter at Thursday’s regular meeting.

GVMC Executive Director Jerry Felix said executive committee members heard both sides of the controversy at their last meeting. John Schwartz, external affairs director for Ameritech, presented the case for an overlay, while Rusty Merchant, chamber vice president of public policy and government affairs, argued against one.

“It will be on the agenda with a recommendation, 4 to 3, from the executive committee to endorse the chamber proposal,” said Felix of this week’s meeting. “We may invite John Schwartz and Rusty Merchant back again to be in the audience and answer any questions.”

For all practical purposes, the chamber wants three things to happen. First, for the state to have more say in deciding whether to split an area code or overlay it. Currently much of that power rests with the Federal Communications Commission.

Second, change the amount of numbers that are allocated to phone companies. Instead of issuing these in a block of 10,000, which can mean that many don’t get assigned, the chamber wants these issued in blocks of 1,000 so thousands of numbers don’t sit idle.

Third, split the 616 area in half by adding a new code.

The chamber argues that an overlay will be confusing, as new numbers in the 616 area will also get the new area code. If a business adds phone lines under the overlay, the company will find itself with two different area codes under the same roof.

The chamber claims it will be costly for area businesses to adapt to the overlay, as current phone systems will either have to be upgraded or scrapped for new ones. Also, the chamber says that an overlay means every local call will require 10-digit dialing — the seven-digit number and the area code. Calls between the two area codes would be toll-free, though.

The phone companies agree that reducing a block of numbers from 10,000 to 1,000 would help with assigning new numbers. But they view the overlay as a more practical way to address the growing number of requests for new lines, largely fueled by the addition of computers and fax machines in homes and businesses.

“Schwartz said for the next several years if you want a new number and you’re in area code 616, you probably can get area code 616. But if Steelcase wants 100 numbers, he said that would be tough,” explained Felix.

Oakland County recently learned that it is getting an overlay in June 2002. The county’s chief executive, L. Brooks Patterson, fought against one and asked for the 248 area to be split with a new area code.

“It’s a recipe for confusion,” said Patterson of the overlay to the Detroit News. “I can see the chaos coming when your daughter gets a phone and you now have two area codes in the same house.”

But NeuStar, the company that administers the phone-numbering system, said the county needed another area code because of the high demand for computer and fax lines.      

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